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What is ‘preppy’? The old slang has a new meaning

Forget pearls, blazers and tennis skirts.
green tights on pink background
Bright, colorful fashion styles have redefined the word "preppy" in the teen world.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

We all know what "preppy" means — don't we?

If you're older than those in Generation Alpha (anyone born after 2012) you might think of a wealthy person with a particular fashion sense (collared shirts, khaki pants, tennis skirts or blazers) who attended college-preparatory school and is really comfortable at a country club.

Think of film and television characters like Steff McKee from “Pretty in Pink,” Blair Waldorf from “Gossip Girl” or Carlton Banks from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Now, the word "preppy" has changed, according to David Burke, aka “Slangman" and co-host of the podcast “Slingin’ The Slang!”

"It started as slang for students at elite, Ivy League-preparatory schools in the Northeastern U.S.," Burke tells TODAY.com. "It became a mainstream word thanks to popular icons like President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy Onassis and evolved into the playful alternative 'prepster.'"

Now, teens have made the word their own.

What does 'preppy' mean today?

Alphas have tried to explain the 'new' definition of preppy on TikTok. But depending on the source's age, it can vary.

"Preppy is like, Lululemon and Lily Pulitzer," a young girl named Simone explained to her half-sister Nicole Pellegrino in a viral video.

"Polo?" asked Pellegrino.

"That's 'Vanilla Girl,'" which is a minimalist aesthetic and lifestyle, answered Simone.

Arizona special-education math teacher Philip Lindsay, who filmed a viral TikTok video listing 24 slang words he hears in school, asked his middle school students to define preppy in a different video.

"Like, when you wear pink and wear smiley faces," one student answered.

"So it's a style," he clarified.

"Yeah, it's an aesthetic," answered one.

A TikTok video of three young girls promoting Texas clothing boutique Dear Hannah Prep, gave their thoughts on "preppy."

"It's fun and colorful," explained a girl.

"Exciting and very girly," one said.

"Preppy could be stylish and comfy," stated another girl.

Adults are confused

Honestly, the new definition is perplexing, at least to anyone old enough to vote.

“My eldest child ... started to use the word ‘preppy,’” Jenna Bush Hager told recently Hoda Kotb on TODAY with Hoda & Jenna.

"'Mom, cool, you look preppy,'" said Jenna. “And I was like, 'What?'"

According to Bark, an online monitoring company that tracks teenage slang, preppy is “used to refer to a particular aesthetic that involves girly, bright-colored clothes and popular name brands, such as Lululemon and Stanley. It’s very similar to the definition of preppy we grew up with, but slightly more refined and 'basic.'"

Whereas the slang word “basic” describes someone perceived as “boring or a non-conforming person,” preppy conveys simplicity or predictability, according to Bark’s chief parenting officer Titania Jordan.

“Anything that’s idyllic, pleasant, curated or peaceful with an air of wealth,” Jordan tells TODAY.com.  

Is 'preppy' an insult?

Not across the board.

Like other fashion trends, many embrace the preppy look, while others find it unappealing.

"Today, a girl walks up to me and she said that my fit (outfit) was so 'Preppy Nation.' That I was looking preppy," said Mr. Lindsay in another TikTok video.

Lindsay gestured to the Christmas sweater he was wearing, explaining, "This does not fall into my definition of preppy."

He added, "Now, I've heard it used as both kind of an insult like — 'Oh my gosh, that's so preppy' or 'That's Preppy Nation,'" he said. "But I also hear them using it as like, a compliment: 'Oh, that fit is Preppy Nation' or 'Oh, it's preppy in here.'"